We have this false doctrine, this peculiar notion, that everything we do in church requires authority. We inherited this doctrine, known as the Regulative Principle, from (of all people) John Calvin. It’s amazing, you know, that we can be as staunchly anti-Calvinistic as we are and yet build our entire theology around a doctrine invented by Calvin.
I’ll not go into all the reasons that the authority argument is so wrong here. I’ve dealt with it here. In this post, I want to talk about what the real theology is.
We begin in 1 Cor 14 —
(1 Cor 14:2-5) For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. 3 But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Now, when I was a kid, we never studied this chapter. In fact, in Bible class at Lipscomb, in the course on 1 & 2 Corinthians, my professor skipped this chapter. The reason, of course, was that we were in the midst of a denominational crisis over gifts of the Spirit. Nonetheless, in my upbringing, 1 Cor 14 was considered impenetrably difficult because we so focused on the tongues aspect of the chapter.
But the chapter actually has a lot to say about our assemblies. You see, Paul was confronted with the question of whether to allow prophecy and tongues in the assembly. He addressed the question pragmatically: do tongues and prophecy fulfill the purpose of the assembly?
He doesn’t ask or even begin to address the question of whether they are authorized. Paul doesn’t say, “They aren’t in the list of the five acts of worship and so they are prohibited.” No, Paul just asks whether they help fulfill the assembly’s purpose.
In fact, in v 3 he concludes that prophecy is permissible because it provides “strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” He notes in v 4 that prophecy “edifies the church.” Therefore, prophecy is allowed.
However, tongues do not strengthen, encourage, comfort, or edify, and so they are not permitted.
But then Paul begins making exceptions.
(1 Cor 14:27-31) If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.
Tongues aren’t banned because they are unauthorized. They aren’t permitted because they are authorized. Rather, they are permitted when an interpreter is preseant because, with an interpreter, they edify.
Neither is prophecy inherently permitted as authorized. It’s only permitted if the prophets take turns and don’t interrupt each other. You see, even prophecy only edifies if done right.
Finally, Paul is concerned with the practical impact on visitors —
(1 Cor 14:23-25) So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25 and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Tongues aren’t permitted if they make you look crazy. Add an interpreter, though, and the miracle is evident and they are permitted. Just so, prophecy demonstrates God’s power, unless, of course, the prophets are rude.
Now, this makes perfect sense. Rather than agonizing over what’s an aid, an expedient, or an addition, we simply consider the practical impact of what we do. Will it edify, encourage, strengthen, or comfort those present? Will it impress visitors with the presence of God? Or will we seem self-indulgent, crazy, or rude?
These are questions we can answer. Some answers will vary from culture to culture, place to place. But that’s okay. It’s not about a semi-hidden list of do’s and don’ts. It’s about being effective in God’s church as community.
Of course, we must add to this the previous lesson. Plainly, encouragement to love and good works is part of the purpose of the assembly (Heb 10:24-25). It’s not the only purpose, but it’s a critically important purpose.
And so, let me make a simple, Biblical suggestion. If the worship leader comes to the elders and asks permission to lead a song during communion, ask: will this edify, encourage, comfort, or strengthen the church? Don’t ask: is there a scripture that authorizes singing during communion. It’s the wrong question.
Just so, if the elders meet with the people who want to encourage people to volunteer for the school supply drive for those too poor to buy their own, and if these people want an announcement made by a guy dressed up as a blue crayon, don’t ask whether we are authorized to wear pointy blue hats in church. Ask whether this might spur people to love and good works.
This radical approach to the assembly will, of course, exclude some things. I mean, hateful sermons about the sins of the church down the road will impress visitors with your pettiness and backbiting, not the presence of God. They have to be eliminated.
And songleaders who lead “Sing and Be Happy” or (worse yet) “O Happy Day” as though they were funeral dirges … well, there’s nothing edifying about that. Retrain them. Don’t let them convince visitors that we are against happiness!
(The following videos are for those who aren’t familiar with these Bible Belt standbys — or who wonder how much better they’d sound at the proper pace.)
(“Sing and Be Happy” comes after “Cherokee Shuffle.”)
Now, 1 Cor 14 changes everything. It’s tells us plainly and simply how to think about the assembly. It’s about fulfilling the assembly’s purpose, not following a bunch of rules in ways that frustrate the purpose of the assembly. It’s about understanding why we meet in the first place.
Let’s go back to Hebrews 10 —
(Heb 10:23-27) Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
V 23 is a simple but important lesson. Jesus will be faithful to us, and so we need to be faithful to him. Vv. 26-27 tells us what happens if we aren’t.
While we should have confidence in God’s promises (v 22), we should recognize how deceitful Satan can be. God’s grace is broad, but it has limits. We really can fall away. And the best way to stay true to God, to hold onto our hope, is to meet regularly and to do good works.
We need to be about God’s mission. We need to be serving others. And so we need to meet because our meetings help us do just that.
The purpose of Christianity is not to meet weekly and perform five rituals. Rather, we gather to help each other live the lives to which we’ve been called. And that which helps us do that is authorized. The use of the talents God has given us for that purpose is authorized.
Aids, additions, expedients, silences, and all that — well, they just don’t figure in. Helping each other make it to heaven, that is authorized. Even if we use a guitar to do it.